Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington

“I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.”[1]  — George Washington

Before his first brush with battle, three military adventures worked together to charm and inspire young George Washington’s fascination with the military and helped push him to pursue a career as a soldier in Virginia’s militia and then as commander of the Continental Army.

Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c 1738)

Portrait of Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c. 1738). Credit: Wikipedia / Mount Vernon.

The boy Washington was first charmed by the military service of his older half-brother Lawrence.  In 1739, the colorfully-named War of Jenkins’ Ear between Britain and Spain began. Ostensibly sparked by the Spanish coast guard boarding a ship captained by Robert Jenkins and cutting off his ear, the war was another one of those conflicts over trade, colonies, and the spoils of the New World so often fought between Europe’s empires in the 18th century.

In June 1740, a commission from George II arrived in Virginia for Lawrence. He was made a captain in one of four infantry regiments of colonial Virginians being raised for service in the war.  On May 30, 1741, Lawrence wrote to his father Augustine describing his role in the Battle of Cartegena de Indias when the British launched an amphibious assault on the city of Cartegena de Indias in Colombia.

Lawrence reported to his father that the British “destroyed eight Forts, six Men of War, six gallioons and some Merchant ships” but “what number of Men they [the Spaniards] lost we know not; the enemy killed of ours about six hundred & some wounded, & the climate killed us in greated [sic] numbers.”  In the end, the British suffered a crushing defeat but more because of disease than battle casualties.

Defensa de Cartagena de Indias por la escuadra de D. Blas de Lezo, año 1741 by Luis Fernández Gordillo

“Defensa de Cartagena de Indias por la escuadra de D. Blas de Lezo, año 1741” by Luis Fernández Gordillo. Credit: Wikipedia / Naval Museum of Madrid.

Virginia’s regiments suffered greatly.  “Some are so weak as to be reduced to a third of their men,” Lawrence wrote but he also revealed that “vastly to my satisfaction” he had been serving “on board Admiral Vernon’s ship.” Vernon was the naval commander during the battle and was greatly admired by Lawrence. He was so admired, in fact, that Lawrence named the family’s Little Hunting Creek property bequeathed to him after Augustine’s death Mount Vernon.

NPG 881; Edward Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough

Portrait of Edward Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1753 (NPG 881). Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Lawrence ultimately concluded that “war is horrid in fact, but much more so in imagination.” His experiences aboard an admiral’s flagship probably protected him some from the horrors of war.  War did not turn Lawrence off of military service.  He was awarded the post of Adjutant General for all of Northern Virginia’s militia along with the rank of major.

George was about 10-years-old when Lawrence returned home from war.  How many war stories did his older brother share with him?  We do not know but we do know that George and Lawrence were close, especially in the aftermath of their father’s death.  It seems a safe bet to conclude that Lawrence’s military service also likely influenced his effort in 1746 to have fourteen-year-old George join the Royal Navy.

George’s captivation with military adventure was further strengthened by the exploits of Duke Frederick Herman von Schomberg.  On September 10, 1747, fourteen-year-old George purchased 3 books from his cousin Bailey for the combined price of 4 shillings 12 pence.  One of the books is listed as “Scomberg,” a reference to a 17th century German Protestant soldier of fortune, who fought under the flags of France, Germany, Portugal, and England and died at the Battle of the Boyne fighting for William of Orange.  Schomberg wrote about his adventures, which would have been of great interest to a young man like Washington.  That George willing spent hard earned money during a time of financial hardship reveals how enthralled he was with military exploits.

 

Friedrich von Schomberg atrributed to Adrian van der Werff (1600s)

Portrait of Friedrich von Schomberg atrributed to Adrian van der Werff (c. 1600s) Credit: Wikipedia.

We do not know the impact, if any, of Schomberg’s exploits upon George’s military thinking. One incident does stands out, however.  While in Ireland commanding the army of William of Orange, England’s new king, against supporters of James II, England’s old king, Schomberg decided that his raw and undisciplined troops would not fare well in battle.  As a result, he held his army behind defensive works instead of confronting the enemy and their superior numbers.  This much-criticized action bares notable similarities to Washington’s main strategy during the Revolutionary War.  Washington defeated the British because, overall, he did not fight the British. Instead, he maintained his “army in being.”  Washington wisely avoided confrontation, when possible, with the professionals who made up the best army in the world.  The American army was inexperienced and initially amateur but as long as the army existed, the newly independent United States would also exist.  The Continental Army had to survive even if that meant avoiding, instead of confronting, the British Army.

The final adventure that inspired a fascination with military things in young George Washington was his trip to Barbados.  In 1751, nineteen-year-old George and his older half-brother Lawrence traveled to that Caribbean island in the hope that the tropical climate would relieve Lawrence’s tuberculous.  This was George’s first and only trip away from the North American continent and to another part in Britain’s vast Empire.

 

Early in their stay, Washington made the first of several visits to Needham’s Fort guarding the south side of Carlisle Bay. He met Captain Petrie, the fort’s commander, and dined with him at the fort more then once.  The fortress seems to have impressed the teenage Washington for he recorded in his journal that it was “pretty strongly fortified and mounts about 36 Gunes within the fortifin and 2 facine Batterys.”[2]

Needham's Point, Barbabos by Reinhard Link

Needham’s Point, Barbados. Credit: Reinhard Link.

Furthermore, he and Lawrence stayed at the house of Captain Croftan, who commanded James Fort on the bay’s north side.  Even Croftan’s house, Washington noted, “command[ed] the prospect of Carlyle Bay & all the shipping in such manner that none can go in or out with out being open to our view.”[3]

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

On the return voyage to Virginia and Ferry Farm, George judged that because Barbados had “large intrenchments cast up wherever its possible for an Enemy to Land” the island itself was essentially “one intire fortification.”[4]

As Jack Warren ably concludes, “George Washington’s encounter with the British military establishment in Barbados seems to have had a crucial impact on his aspirations . . . .  After returning to Virginia, he dedicated himself to advancement in the military more completely than any of his Virginia contemporaries. And unlike most of the prominent colonial militia officers of the 1750s, he sought a commission in the regular British military establishment– an ambition that was probably prompted, and undoubtedly stimulated, by his experience in Barbados.”

washington-portrait-1772

Portrait of George Washington (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. The earliest authenticated portrait depicts Washington in the Virginia Militia uniform he wore during the French and Indian War. Credit: Washington and Lee University / Wikipedia

These three military adventures – Lawrence’s service in the War of Jenkin’s Ear, the written exploits of Schomberg, and George’s trip to the heavily fortified imperial outpost of Barbados – all worked to inspire Washington’s fascination with military matters and drove him to eventually pursue the life of a soldier in the French and Indian War and then, most importantly, in the War for Independence.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

 

[1] George Washington to John Augustine Washington, May 31, 1754, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-01-02-0058 [accessed May 22, 2017].

[2] Washington in The Daily Journal of Major George Washington in 1751-2 Kept While on a Tour from Virginia to the Island of Barbadoes, J.M. Toner, ed., Albany, NY: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1892: 52.

[3] Washington in Toner, 47-8.

[4] Washington in Toner, 62.

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George Washington, Baseball Player?

I find that February, though it has the fewest days, can be the longest month of the year. The novelty of winter has worn off and, often, I simply seem to be enduring until the first glimpses of spring in March. I do, however, look forward with excitement to two moments in February: George Washington’s Birthday and the day that Major League Baseball’s pitchers start their spring training. In a way, these two events are connected by more than their close proximity to one another on the calendar.

After the familiar cherry tree tale, the second most popular story about George Washington’s youth is the story of him throwing a rock the size of a silver dollar across a river. This legend has changed several times over the years but it may have some truth.

The earliest version appears in The Life of Washington by Mason Locke Weems, who notes that George’s cousin remembered seeing him “throw a stone across [the] Rappahannock, at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg.”[1] George Washington Parke Custis, Martha’s son, provides a bit more detail for this toss, noting that the rock was actually “a piece of slate, fashioned to about the size and shape of a dollar, and which, sent by an arm so strong, not only spanned the river, but took the ground at least thirty yards on the other side.”[2] Archaeologist Phil Levy estimates “that could have been a distance of anywhere from a staggering 440 feet (professional baseball fields vary from 390 to 435 feet at the centerfield wall) to an impressive 340 feet.”[3]

We’ll never have the evidence historians need to say with certainty that young George actually threw a rock across the Rappahannock. It is a plausible story, however. So, each February at Ferry Farm’s birthday celebration, visitors try and duplicate George’s feat, provided the day’s weather or any lingering snow on the ground doesn’t prevent us from traipsing down to the river.

A visitor attempts to throw a rock across the Rappahannock River during the George Washington Birthday Celebration at Ferry Farm.

The feat has actually been duplicated, most famously by Walter “Big Train” Johnson, celebrated pitcher for the Washington Senators, on a Depression-era February day in 1936. Officials in charge of that year’s birthday celebration at Ferry Farm challenged the retired Major League right-hander, raising the ire of Congressman Sol Bloom of New York, who believed the story of Washington’s toss, to be “preposterous.” Quoted in the February 18, 1936 edition of The Free Lance Star, Bloom felt the feat “physically impossible” because “Washington was about 10 years old when the miracle was supposed to have happened.” Perhaps, he forgot that George lived at Ferry Farm well into his late teens?

A few days before the celebration, reporters found Johnson training for the toss by throwing a coin at the barn on his Germantown, Maryland farm. “‘Maybe I can’t throw that far,’ he drawled, ‘but there’s one thing certain—if George Washington did it, I can too.’”

Walter Johnson poses as if in mid-throw on the icy bank of the Rappahannock.

Finally, the day came. On the front page of the February 22, 1936 edition, The Free Lance Star’s banner headline trumpeted “‘Big Train’ Duplicates Washington’s Feat.” Standing on the Ferry Farm side of the river at 2:30 p.m. that day, Johnson took two practice tosses. The first plopped into the water just five feet short of the bank while the second made it across. Then, he attempted the official throw. Johnson “drew back his famous right arm and with a powerful heave let fly a silver dollar that sailed high into the air, spanned the 273 foot stream and plunked on the opposite bank.” Bloom graciously wired his congratulations and invited Johnson to stop in Washington and celebrate with him on his way back to Germantown.

Front page of The Free Lance Star, February 22, 1936

The attempt became something of a national sensation with newspapers in Michigan, Florida, Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, and beyond reporting the story. A live radio program on the Columbia Broadcasting System beamed a description of the throw into countless homes across the nation.

Although it doesn’t garner the attention it did in 1936, the Stone Throw Challenge remains a centerpiece of Ferry Farm’s annual Washington’s Birthday Celebration when the weather allows it. On that day, which is usually about the time that today’s aspiring Walter Johnsons are starting to prepare for their seasons, I think of a day during the Great Depression when a big league pitcher added to his own legend by duplicating the prodigious feat of the most legendary American of all. As I watch our visitors attempt their throws, I think of the “Big Train” and I also always wonder just what kind of ballplayer George Washington might have been.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Join us at Ferry Farm on Saturday, February 14 for our George Washington’s Birthday Celebration, when – weather permitting – we’ll see if anyone else can throw a stone across the Rappahannock River. Along with the Stone Throw Challenge, enjoy crafts, games, exhibits, live history performances, and birthday cake! Visit www.kenmore.org/events.html for more details about the Birthday Celebration along with Archaeology Day on Monday, February 16!

[1] Mason Locke Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, Macy-Masius Publishers, 1927: 39.

[2] George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, Philadelphia, J.W. Bradley, 1861: 482.

[3] Phil Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013: 226.